Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Successfully Using Stations in the Middle School Classroom

I’ll admit, when I first began using stations the main reason was so I didn’t have to make copies for 200 students. The copy machines at my school were frequently broken, out of toner, and often inaccessible due to high need from other teachers and the lack of regular and predictable planning periods. If I wanted to make copies, I either had to get to school around seven or stay well after the final bell rang.  Even then I might not be able to print what I needed for my students because the paper might be locked away to save the district some money. Stations were a perfect solution to my copy machine dilemmas. However, once I began using stations I found many more reasons to keep using them in my seventh grade science classes. Perhaps most importantly, students love stations and are motivated simply because they can be out of their seats and be more in charge of their learning (more on that later). Stations are super easy to differentiate and can be used to meet the needs of all of your students. Also, they are easy to use and quick to set up. If you’ve never heard of stations, ever considered using stations, or if you currently use stations and they aren’t quite as effective as you’d like, keep reading.

Students practice identifying variables and writing hypotheses
with these Scientific Method Stations.

What are stations?

Stations are a way for students to practice lesson content while moving around the classroom instead of being seated at desks. (That might sound scary when considering certain classes—believe me, I’ve been there. However, I’ve used stations with even my most rambunctious, out of control classes of 35+ seventh grade students. It can be done successfully.) Stations can be questions or short tasks posted on the perimeter of the room. In my science classes I typically used questions that could be answered with students’ notes, textbooks, knowledge, or skills. I included a variety of question levels—some easy and straightforward and others rigorous and challenging. I have also set up measurement stations with tasks to complete such as finding the volume of an object using the water displacement method or predicting the mass of an object and then using a balance to see how close their predictions were. When I noticed students had a hard time finding information in textbooks, I had stations where students had to find a specific piece of information using glossaries, tables of contents, or indexes. I’ve even cut up a worksheet and posted it around the room as stations. Answering the questions on a worksheet can be tedious, but when that same worksheet is in station form it becomes more engaging and meaningful.

When students are up and around the room doing stations they’ll need to record their answers. This can be done on notebook paper that they hand in when they’re finished or in their interactive notebooks.

How do I set up stations in my classroom?

Start off by writing the questions or tasks you want your students to answer. Use fairly large font so they are easy to read from a distance of several feet. Then print them out and cut them up. If you want, you can laminate them so they are in good condition by the time the last class of students goes through them.  I personally did not laminate them, so I always had some rips or pencil marks on the papers by the end of the day. Instead of laminating I just used extra tape to prevent the majority of damage. 

Once you have your stations printed, cut out, and maybe laminated you can tape them around the room on walls, windows, or tables. Finding space in my classroom was always easy because my room was ginormous. I also had countertops bordering the walls of three-quarters of my classroom. The space you leave between stations obviously depends on how many stations you have, but whenever possible try to leave at least a yard between them. This helps the students stay focused on their task instead of socializing with nearby groups.  It also helps the teacher spot misbehavior earlier and sprout fewer gray hairs.

When should I use stations?

There were two purposes for using stations in my classroom: practice or review. If I was using the stations as a way to reinforce the material we learned, I scheduled them after taking notes and doing a whole class practice. Basically, I wanted my students to have the fundamentals down and the ability to be decently independent before beginning stations. If students needed to review material, I typically used stations as a review activity the day or two before a test.

I’ve also had luck using stations before big breaks like Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, or summer vacation. Whenever students are especially squirrelly, stations are usually a good choice because students can move around the room and still engage in the material they need to learn and understand instead of wasting learning time.  (Stations have kept me sane on more than one occasion before a break.)

What behavioral expectations should be established before beginning stations?

Before beginning stations, you MUST go over your behavior expectations. Otherwise, the students have a 95% chance of turning feral within three minutes. Here are the station expectations I went over every time we did stations. 
  • Students will have no more than three students to a station at any time. If there is already a group at that station, then they must go to another station.
  • Students do not have to go in order. They may skip around to any station as long as they write their answers in the correct location on their own papers. 
  • As long as students are on task and working, students may pick the student(s) they want to work with. Students may also work individually.
  • Students will receive only one warning for off task behavior. If they are off task a second time, they will have to complete the assignment individually in their seat using a worksheet form of the stations.
  • Students may only visit the answer sheet twice during the stations.
  • When students finish the stations they need to check all of their answers and return to their seats.


How do I monitor behavior during stations, and what do I do about misbehavior?

If you aren’t directly supporting a group of students, walk around the room and monitor behavior. Keep an eye and ear out for horseplay. Whenever students misbehave or don’t follow a station expectation give them a warning. If students have a second problem, direct the offending students back to their seats and give them a worksheet form of the stations to complete individually. Remind students they cannot get out of their seats for the remaining station time, otherwise you might find them messing with their friends and wandering around the room “working on the stations.” Depending on whether your stations consist of questions or tasks, your students might not be able to do every station on their worksheet. In that case instruct them to skip the station or complete it individually later on.

Biggest advice here: don’t let small misbehaviors get out of hand. Immediately give the warning/consequence and briefly explain to the student what they did wrong and why it’s a problem. Here is an example of how that might sound: “Billybobjoe, you were visiting another group again. When you do this it is distracting to other students and you can’t learn. Because you didn’t follow the station expectations, now you will finish the stations at your desk by yourself on this worksheet.”

How can I use stations to meet the needs of all of my students?

Stations are excellent for differentiation purposes. Students can choose what works for them. For example, I let my students determine if they wanted to work independently, with a partner, or in a group of three. They also determined the order in which they completed the stations. They could skip around or go in numerical order while working at their own pace. Posting an answer sheet gave my students support by allowing them to check their work or get help with a problem they were struggling with. While my students were working, I was free to meet with a small group of students who needed extra support. Sometimes I determined ahead of time who should be in that day's support group and other times I left it up to the students to come to me for assistance.

Consider posting answer sheets (like I did with the
Changes in States of Matter Stations) so students can
check their work and get assistance if needed.

Another way to differentiate is by arranging the stations from easiest to hardest. For the most part, students are pretty good at determining their levels of understanding. Whenever I arranged the stations this way, I explained it to my students and let them choose where they needed to be. Providing the right context and reasoning is important for this. Don’t just say: left is easy, center is medium, and right is hard. Then you’d have a flock of students on the left with no one really benefiting. Explain that the stations on the left side are for students who feel they are having difficulty with the content and need to build up their knowledge and skills first. The stations in the center are a medium level of difficulty for students who feel they have a fairly good understanding of the content and are ready for reinforcement practice. The stations on the right side of the room are for students who feel they understand the material very well and need a challenge. When I explained it this way, my students didn’t feel bad if they were on the left side. As for the right side, many were eager for a challenge and would start by looking at the questions to see if they were ready or needed to go more towards the center.

When arranging by level of difficulty, give your students a number of stations to complete. If there are 30 stations, maybe have them choose any 10. Having students complete all of the stations can defeat the purpose of arranging them this way.

What do I do when students finish the stations at different times?

There are several solutions to this. You can set a timer and have students complete as many stations as they can in 20 minutes. If there are a small number of stations or if the questions/tasks are relatively quick to get through, you can start a five-minute timer after the first five students finish; then announce that everyone needs to be done in less than five minutes. You can have students begin their homework or an individual class assignment at their seats. They can read a book. I’ve tried all of these methods in my class and switched it up depending on the student or lesson needs.

What stations do you use in your own classroom?

I'm so glad you asked. :) In my Teachers Pay Teachers store you can find several of the stations I have used in my seventh grade science classroom. I’m in the process of getting other sets available in my store as well. Currently, these are the stations in my store:
  • Scientific Method Stations: These can be used in a variety of ways. Most often my students used these stations to identify independent and dependent variables and write hypotheses.  
  • Changes in States of Matter Stations: These stations give students practice with the key points of melting, freezing, vaporization, condensation, and sublimation. 
  • Human Body Organ System Stations: Students practice the important characteristics of the skeletal system, circulatory system, respiratory system, muscular system, digestive system, and nervous system.
  • Properties of Matter/Physical Science Review Stations: I use these stations to review physical science concepts before the unit test. They go over atoms, states of matter, changes in states, physical and chemical changes, law of conservation of mass/matter, homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures, elements, and compounds. 

If you haven’t already, try using stations in your classroom. With the correct implementation, they can really benefit your students. Plus, you don’t have to make a bazillion copies ;)